Yet another weird SF fan

I'm a mathematician, a libertarian, and a science-fiction fan. Common sense? What's that?

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Yet another weird SF fan

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Other Cases of Reticence

According to James Hansen:

I suggest that ‘scientific reticence’, in some cases, hinders communication with the public about dangers of global warming. If I am right, it is important that policy-makers recognize the potential influence of this phenomenon.

Scientific reticence may be a consequence of the scientific method. Success in science depends on objective skepticism. Caution, if not reticence, has its merits. However, in a case such as ice sheet instability and sea level rise, there is a danger in excessive caution. We may rue reticence, if it serves to lock in future disasters.

Barber (1961) describes a ‘resistance by scientists to scientific discovery’, with a scholarly discussion of several sources of cultural resistance. There are aspects of the phenomenon that Barber discusses in the ‘scientific reticence’ that I describe, but additional factors come into play in the case of global climate change and sea level rise.

I can illustrate ‘scientific reticence’ best via personal experiences. The examples are relevant to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process of consensus building, specifically to the issue of possible sea level rise.

There are other cases of ‘scientific reticence.‘ Nobody talks about phlogiston any more. Most scientists simply ignore the evidence that the sky is green. Most important of all, the global-warming believers are reticent about contrary evidence.

There are more examples here.

I Have Two Permanent Ages

Scott Adams asks:

Here’s a fun question to ask people after a few drinks: What’s your permanent age?

I’ve observed that everyone has a permanent age that appears to be set at birth. For example, I’ve always been 42-years old. I was ill-suited for being a little kid, and didn’t enjoy most kid activities. By first grade I knew I wanted to be an adult, with an established career, car, house and a decent tennis game. I didn’t care for my awkward and unsettled twenties. And I’m not looking forward to the rocking chair. If I could be one age forever, it would be 42.

I have two permanent ages. I'm part 10 and part 60. Maybe I should have called this blog “The Cranky Old Pre-Adolescent.”

Now get off my lawn! I have to get back to my science-fiction magazines.

Addendum: It looks like Nerdstar also has two permanent ages.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Problem with 300

If there's a movie made about the Peloponnesian War, how will we explain how the heroic Spartans turned into the Bad Guys?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I'm Sorry to Be a Wet Blanket but …

The hexagon on Saturn has a mundane explanation.

This Was Supposed to Be Which Future?

Seen on a t-shirt:

they lied to us

this was supposed to be the future

where is my jetpack,

where is my robotic companion,
where is my dinner in pill form,
where is my hydrogen-fueled automobile,
where is my nuclear-powered levitating house,

where is my cure for this disease
“They” lied to you about the other future as well, when nuclear-winter, the incipient Ice Age, resource shortages, the devolution of the human race, and the heat death of the universe were going to wipe out Civilization as We Know It. Come to think of it it, “they” lied to you about the psychedelic future (when everybody would get stoned) as well …

Of course, in this universe we have robotic vaccum cleaners, a computer as chess grandmaster, dental implants (teeth bonded to the bone were only seen in Isaac Asimov's science fiction a few decades ago), and even a decline in the total number of deaths. We're getting there.

By the way, where did the meme of “they predicted dinner in pill form” come from? Lileks also mentioned it:

When Aunt Debra was 22, she was told she'd be commuting to work on the moon and eating a pill for lunch in 30 years, so perhaps we should take this with a grain of salt. But only one -- otherwise your toilet will tell the insurance company, which will increase your co-pay for your high-blood-pressure medicine.
The meme has been around for a while. In the 1970s, I recall reading an Archie comic book in which Jughead is appalled at the prediction that food would become obsolete. What was its origin? (The similar meme of “they predicted nuclear energy would be too cheap to meter” came from an after-dinner speech, apparently by somebody who had overindulged.)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Food That Is Out of This World

In response to my post on eating locally, TJIC suggested eating very non-locally:

Personally, I’m still waiting to bite into a yummy ear of Moon corn (grows six times bigger because of the lower gravity, I hear!)
You might eat a Moon Pie from the Moon or a Mars Bar from Mars. I'm reminded of the following passage from Men of Mathematics:
The decade following the Ceres episode was rich in both happiness and sorrow for Gauss. Eminent men who had the ear of the polite public ridiculed the young man of twenty four for wasting his time on so useless a pastime as the computation of a minor planet's orbit. Ceres might be the goddess of the fields, but it was obvious to the merry wits that no corn grown on the new planet would ever find its way into the Brunswick market of a Saturday afternoon.
I think we should take that as a challenge.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Global Climate Change: The Real Controversies

Science Daily has published an article about Dr. Peter Tsigaris, an economist who has identified the real global-warming controversy. He has analyzed it in terms of the supposed cost of error on both sides.

“It is obvious that a type II error, being unaware that global warming is caused by humans and maintaining our current living styles, is much more serious than a type I error which argues that humans are the cause when they are not, in terms of the costs,” he says.

When somebody with a PhD says something in his alleged field is obvious, it means he has no actual evidence. If he had evidence he would cite it.

“The cost of changing behaviour and taking action now is estimated at one percent of global GDP and this can be seen as an investment from a long-term perspective: investing in cleaner technologies and also putting a price tag on the use of our atmosphere. If we delay as we would do if we accepted that climate change is not human-caused when this conclusion was false, we would be faced with a huge cost,” warns Tsigaris.

First, guesses of the costs of government programs are almost always underestimates. Second, there is a strong possibility that “one percent” means a one percentage point decrease in annual economic growth. Third, we have already invested in “cleaner technologies.” That produced nuclear power, a technology likely to be shut down by the most probable regulators.

The recent 2007 IPCC report concluded that global warming was very likely (90 per cent) to have been caused by humans. The Stern Review states that “the benefits of strong and early action far outweigh the economic costs of not acting” and estimates that “if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5 per cent  of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20 per cent of GDP or more. In contrast, the costs of action – reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – can be limited to around  1 per cent of global GDP each year.

There you have it. The real controversies are: 1) Do you believe our options for handling allegedly-dangerous global warming are likely to improve in the absence of regulation? 2) Do you believe government programs stay limited?

Addendum: I forgot to put in the link. The problem is now fixed.

Friday, March 23, 2007

That's One Way to Lose Weight

Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin, a couple in Manhattan, are trying to live for a year on food grown within 250 miles of their apartment.

How many people would starve if everybody in the New York area tried the same stunt?

Addendum: The following should be embarrassing to geeks everwhere:

Mr. Beavan, who has a Ph.D. in applied physics …
At least they didn't call him Doctor.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Greens Will Find a Reason to Protest This

There's a theoretically-cheap method of turning sunlight and seawater into hydrogen fuel.

I suspect the Usual Suspects will protest for reasons involving salinization and memories of the Hindenburg disaster. On the other hand, they will probably wait until this potential technology is used as a reason to stop nuclear reactors from being built.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What Were They Saying Four Years Ago?

Over on Fark, you can see what the commenters there were saying about Iraq four years ago. I searched for the word “predict” and found:

2003-03-19 10:05:13 PM brywalker  

Well, I would just like to welcome you all to World War III. Hope we survive.

I predict massive terror attacks by the weekend. We just pissed a lot of people off.

Jesus God please let me be wrong.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Can't Both Sides Lose?

I'd rather not take sides in the local vs. organic controversy. It's a fight between two tribes of cavemen.

I noticed an odd claim by the local side:

My favorite definition of local comes from Columbia's Gussow, a reporter for Time in the 1950s who went on to become a local-eating pioneer. For 25 years, Gussow has lectured on the environmental (and culinary) disadvantages of relying on a global food supply. Her most oft-quoted statistic is that shipping a strawberry from California to New York requires 435 calories of fossil fuel but provides the eater with only 5 calories of nutrition. In her memoir, Gussow offers this rather poetic meaning of local: "Within a day's leisurely drive of our homes. [This] distance is entirely arbitrary. But then, so was the decision made by others long ago that we ought to have produce from all around the world."
Does this clown really think the Board of Directors of Evil Capitalists, Inc. really sat down one day and decided to make non-local foods popular? Are they force-feeding maple syrup to people outside New England? Are winter fruits and vegetables in the northeastern United States offered at gunpoint? Did they have a Five-Year Plan to enable people in the midwestern United States to eat salt-water fish? I'm reminded of paleoconservatives who think that immigrants are being forced into the United States. (Come to think of it, that's another type of pro-local opinion.)

I'd also like to know the relevance of comparing the calories of a strawberry to the calories of flying the strawberry. (According to other sources the comparison is about flying the strawberry.) It looks like the comparison was cooked twice: first by examining a low-calorie food (maybe we should only ship candy bars) and second by examining a fossil-fuel intensive mode of transportation (maybe we should ship food by nuclear submarine).

Monday, March 19, 2007

“Does God Exist?” Is More Than One Question

You can think of the question “Does God exist?” as a combination of at least two questions:

  1. Is the Universe orderly? When scientists are discussing whether God throws dice or whether God had to aim at this universe, that's usually what they mean. It is not a vacuous statement. Some people (i.e., New Age loons) disagree with it.

    I suspect that, in this sense of the term, a belief in God (the God of Spinoza) is nearly unanimous among scientists.

  2. The next question can understood by considering a complaint by Scott Aaronson:

    It reminds me of how theologians chide Richard Dawkins for refuting only a crude, anthropomorphic, straw-man god instead of a sophisticated Einsteinian one, and then (with an air of self-satisfaction) go off and pray to the crude god.
    In other words, a belief in the God of Spinoza does not necessarily imply a belief in a “yes” answer to one of the two following equivalent questions:
    • Is God anthropomorphic?

    • Are human beings theomorphic?

    When we consider the second question we can see that a religious attitude is a minority opinion among scientists. Most scientists are likely to underestimate the creative abilities of human beings. That's one reason they frequently overestimate the dangers of overpopulation.

    We can also see that the irreligious scientists have often made empirical claims (e.g., about overpopulation or the supposed genetic inferiority of the lower class of the month) that have turned out to be false. By empirical standards, we should take the hypothesis of theomorphic humans (or an anthropomorphic God) as proven.

    There's another consequence of thinking of theomorphic humans. it means transhumanism really is a religion … even if some transhumanists are reluctant to acknowledge it.

An unexpected consequence

If we combine the above reasoning with my theory that human beings are plants, we can see that plants have the potential for being theomorphic. Does that mean the tree huggers were right after all? Clearly, we must help feed and defend our green brethren. We can feed them CO2 fertilizer and use pesticides to defend them against insects …

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The MSM Backup Plan

Robert Kagan asked:

A front-page story in The Post last week suggested that the Bush administration has no backup plan in case the surge in Iraq doesn't work. I wonder if The Post and other newspapers have a backup plan in case it does.
Their backup plan is quite simple. They will take credit for the surge. They will claim it was their criticisms of last year's policies that caused the surge.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

This Sounds Very Dangerous

If these guys did do Eric S. Raymond next …

Friday, March 16, 2007

Stephen Cox vs. Monty Python

In the Word Watch column in the latest issue of Liberty (the column doesn't seem to be online), Stephen Cox complains about the habit of calling advocates for a solution to Problem X, advocates for Problem X:

This kind of creepiness has a political history, one that's more disconcerting than the ignorant statement just quoted. In days of old (about 20 years ago), to speak in favor of some cause was to be an advocate of that cause. Hired spokesmen for one side or the other were advocates for that side: “In the case of Brackman v. Standard Oil, Helen Hastings appeared as an advocate for Standard Oil.” Working as an “advocate for” was a professional job.
On the contrary, I recall Monty Python (somewhat more than 20 years ago) once had an appeal for sanity:
You know, there are many people in the country who, through no fault of their own, are sane. Some of them were born sane. Some of them became sane later in their lives. It is up to people like you and me who are out of our tiny little minds to try and help these people overcome their sanity. You can start in small ways with ping-pong ball eyes and a funny voice and then you can paint half of your body red and the other half green and then you can jump up and down in a bowl of treacle going ‘squawk, squawk, squawk...’ And then you can go ‘Neurhhh! Neurhhh!’ And then you can roll around on the floor going ‘pting pting pting’...

Thereby Explaining Israeli Foreign Policy

Israel's ambassador to El Salvador turns out to be a masochist. I wonder if he did any of the planning for the recent war against Hezbollah.

But We Have a House of Lords

At TCS, Jeff Durstewitz says that the United States government could use a House of Lords. We have a House of Lords. It's called the Supreme Court. Its members are insulated from politics, appointed for life, mostly selected from what passes for American aristocracy (Harvard graduates) … Nowadays they do enough legislating from the bench to be considered a third house of the legislature.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Happy 3.14!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

One Generation, One Vote

John Derbyshire is still not assimilated. While discussing “moral universalism” (the theory that we should not discriminate between would-be immigrants from different parts of the globe), he wrote:
I am curious to know just how "basic" that moral universalism is. In respect of immigration policy, it is a pretty recent addition to our "basics." Fifty years ago nobody would have known what you were talking about. Everyone understood that immigrants from some regions and cultures were to be preferred over those from others. Even Edward Kennedy, speaking in the U.S. Senate in support of the 1965 Immigration Act, took pains to assure the chamber that: "The ethnic mix of this country will not be upset. ... Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area, or the most populated and deprived nations of Africa or Asia..." Where is the moral universalism there? If Senator Kennedy had been a moral universalist, or believed that his voters were, why would he have felt the need to say those things? What would it matter what happened to the "ethnic mix," or which "country or area" immigrants came from?
Recent innovation? The United States didn't discriminate between voluntary immigrants from different areas before 1882. Immigration discrimination was the law for less than 2/5 of American history. It occupies the approximately the same amount of American history as slavery or legalized abortion. By the standards of “One Generation, One Vote,” it is not part of American tradition.

Even during the immigration discrimination period, observers could tell it was an alien idea. (It was based on an attempt to turn the United States into a fake European nation. Why do you think Senator Kennedy was in favor of it?) For example, according to G. K. Chesterton:

…: America invites all men to become citizens; but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship. Only, so far as its primary ideal is concerned, its exclusiveness is religious because it is not racial. The missionary can condemn a cannibal, precisely because he cannot condemn a Sandwich Islander. And in something of the same spirit the American may exclude a polygamist, precisely because he cannot exclude a Turk.

Now in America this is no idle theory. It may have been theoretical, though it was thoroughly sincere, when that great Virginian gentleman declared it in surroundings that still had something of the character of an English countryside. It is not merely theoretical now. There is nothing to prevent America being literally invaded by Turks, as she is invaded by Jews or Bulgars. …

I will admit that the current multicultural fad is a recent, regrettable, and (I hope) temporary innovation.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Problem with a President Giuliani

John Derbyshire expresses my qualms about a President Giuliani in the course of a defense:

This got me wondering. If I look at my own reasons for favoring Rudy, part of it is my perception that Rudy is one mean, nasty son of a bitch. I like that in a President. After all, it’s highly unlikely that the meanness and nastiness will be directed at me personally. It will, one hopes, be directed at America’s enemies; and at our corrupt, dysfunctional, and costly federal bureaucracies; and (this was sure the case during his mayoralty) at the race-guilt shakedown lobbies; and at our moronic, venal, and cowardly congresscritters; and… Why on earth would anyone want a nice guy for president?

Really, seen in this light, the only question about Rudy is, does he have enough ornery meanness and nastiness to go round? Is he a big enough son of a bitch? Perhaps there’s some kind of hormone treatment we can give Rudy, to make him even more of a pitiless, sneering, devious, wife-dumping jerk. I sure hope so.

I have earlier warned about the problems with the above type of conservatism:
The leftward drift of formerly-conservative Supreme Court Justices (discussed here) can be explained fairly easily. Much of the time, conservative is a synonym for “willing to crack down on people who are Not Like Us.” When such a conservative becomes a Supreme Court Justice, the people who are Like Us changes from the middle classes to the political activist class and the people who Not Like Us changes from the lower classes to state legislatures.
I suspect that the meanness and nastiness will be directed at America's two persecuted minorities: big business and fetuses.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Net Energy and Uranium

According to Robert Palgrave, a commenter on Stewart Brand's environmental heresies (seen via NEI Nuclear Notes):

There is only a finite supply of uranium ore containing reasonable concentrations of uranium 235. When this concentration falls below 0.01%, the costs of energy production from nuclear power can no longer cover the costs of extraction of uranium from the earth, at which time the nuclear fuel cycle will produce no net energy. In other words: below a certain uranium content, nuclear power produces less energy than is needed to build, fuel, and operate the reactor and to repair the environmental damage.
Robert Palgrave can be so certain presumably because rarer minerals are at a higher-entropy state and MUST take more energy to extract.

There is a counterexample to that. Uranium is 4 parts per million of the Earth's crust, the same concentration as a typical gold ore. Since gold mines don't run at a loss, gold can be extracted from such a concentration of gold ore at a cost of roughly $20 per gram. Even if we assume that all of that $20 goes to pay for energy, 1 gram of uranium can produce far more than $20 worth of energy if breeder reactors are used.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Better than Syllogisms

According to the very latest research:

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council grantee Peter Austin and three other researchers at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto have just completed a survey of hospital visits in Ontario, showing that, compared to people born under other astrological signs, Virgos have an increased risk of vomiting during pregnancy, Pisces have an increased risk of heart failure, and Libras have an increased risk of fracturing their pelvises.

In fact, each of the 12 astrological signs had at least two medical disorders associated with them, thus placing people born under a given sign at increased risk compared to those born under different signs.

The study, which used data from 10,000,000 Ontario residents in 2000, was conducted with tongue firmly in cheek.

“Replace astrological signs with another characteristic such as gender or age, and immediately your mind starts to form explanations for the observed associations,” says Austin. “Then we leap to conclusions, constructing reasons for why we saw the results we did. We did this study to prove a larger point – the more we look for patterns, the more likely we are to find them, particularly when we don’t begin with a particular question.”

I'm reminded of the following quotation:
One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.
Peter Austin could have discussed the problems of data mining or retrospective studies and have been ignored. Instead he came up with a memorable horse-laugh that made the same point.

Addendum: I just remembered that I once tried making a similar point in response to a Usenet post from Phideaux:

I'm taking a very informal look at a strange little phenomenon which I don't want to describe in plain terms because I really don't believe that some of the apparent parts are truly related, and I don't want to be lumped with the crackpots.

In general terms:

Event A occurs in a definite cycle. (As reliable as sunrise.)

Event B can only occur when Event A happens, and the chance of it happening has been worked out to slightly more than 2.08% (this is not observation, but calculated. My personal observation puts it slightly less, but that's using less than a four year timeline).

Event C is totally unpredictable and the conditions surrounding it are beyond the scope of study, so there is no hope of reproducing it under controlled conditions. It has happened >.214% of the time. There are no near-misses where C could be said to have happened: it either did or it didn't, and always between one A and the next.

However, and here comes the sticky bit, every time C has happened, B has also occurred. (C can't be triggering B unless you believe in astrology, telekineses, little green men, or other nonsense.)

Now I would like to continue to observe this and make no definite conclusions until I've got hundreds of examples of concurrance, but that would take thousands of years.

Now here's my question:

At what point do you start to believe that C is a reliable predictor of B when there is no known science that could possibly link the two?

My response:

Let's consider how many events you could find possible correlations between. If there are 1000 possible events resembling B (e.g., a hurrican hitting North Carolina or a large uptick in the stock market) and 100 possible events resembling C (e.g., three typos in The New York Times_ or your cat throwing up) and you look for all possible correlations between those types of events you're likely find at least one correlation with odds of 100,000 to 1 against.

I have read that critics of the "efficient market hypothesis" frequently find non-random correlations in stock prices. For some reason, most of those correlations stop working after a while.

Addendum II: Medgadget points out the horrible possibility that some people might take this seriously.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Purim of 8048 …

… will be on April Fool's Day.

Or, if you prefer to think of it the other way, April Fool's Day of 4288 will be on Purim.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Science Fiction Meets Reality, Again

Stephen Hawking will soon be weightless:

British physicist Stephen Hawking, who is world-famous for his intellectual prowess as well as his physical frailty, has made a firm date with weightlessness on April 26, aboard a jet flying out of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Hawking's excellent adventure, provided by California-based Zero Gravity Corp., would represent one small step toward the 65-year-old scientist's goal of flying in space as early as 2009 — as well as one giant leap for people with disabilities.

I'm reminded of Waldo.

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